Background: Russian election primer

By Jill Dougherty
Published December 8th 2003 in CNN

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Russians went to the polls Sunday to elect new members of the Duma, the lower house of Parliament.

The following are facts about the elections:

• Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time and since Russia has 11 different time zones, the voting stretched throughout the weekend.

• Some 109 million Russians were eligible to vote. Polling stations had more than 1,200 observers from 48 countries.

• 450 Duma seats must be filled. Technically speaking, voters are selecting candidates to fill half the seats (225) by so-called popular (single) mandate. The other half (225) are allocated by party list. If a given party gets at least 5 percent of the vote, it gets to share in a pro-rata distribution of those 225 seats based on its percentage of the popular vote.

The following are details of Russian political parties:

• Voters had a choice of 23 different parties from across the political spectrum, left, right and centrist.

• The leading party was the centrist United Russia, created in December 1999. It is the party that is aligned with the Kremlin, in fact some critics claim it has no platform except "we love the President."

• Russian presidents traditionally are not members of any political party, but Vladimir Putin (whose poll ratings stand at 80 percent approval) has made it clear in his public statements that he supports United Russia.

• United Russia is headed by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov. Many of its supporters are major public figures, including the powerful mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov. It is well-financed. It currently has 18.4 percent of Duma seats. Some political observers believe they could at least double that figure.

• The Communist Party, lead by Gennady Zyuganov, is traditionally the best-organized party and can draw on millions of dedicated volunteers, many of them retired, who will get out the vote. The party still appeals to people who feel left out of the benefits of the new, competitive economic system. It, however, also is including on its ballot some rich Russians, many of them business leaders, the so-called "Red Oligarchs" and this has created problems with the party's traditional supporters. The Communist Party also has been under constant attack in the government-run media, which has weakened its ratings in the polls.

• LDPR, headed by nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, continues to attract voters because of the antics of Zhirinovsky. His latest -- a fist fight after a TV debate. He is a master at getting media coverage. His rhetoric is anti-everything but in the end he supports the Kremlin.

• The two Western-oriented parties on the right, Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, tend to attract similar types of voters, who are middle class and surviving well in capitalist Russia. Union of Right Forces leader is former Nizhny Novgorod governor Boris Nemtsov.

• Yabloko's head is Grigori Yavlinsky. Many in Russia have proposed that the two parties merge and form a more major voting bloc but the two men refuse. The issue is particularly important in this election because each party is hovering around 5 percent in the polls and risks not getting enough votes to share in the party list allocations. That would mean their exclusion from leading important parliamentary committees.

• A big factor in the parliamentary election was apathy and the feeling by some Russians that their vote would not make a difference since United Russia was destined to win. Turnout for the vote appeared lower than past elections. Analysts say this may have helped the Communists who can always rely on their party faithful to show up a the polls.

• Russia did hold televised debates but United Russia Party (Putin's party) refused to participate.

• Russians wonder whether Friday's terrorist attack on a train in the Stavropol region of southern Russia had an impact on the result. Analysts say it could help to solidify support for the president and government but it also could raise questions as to how such an attack could take place and what government officials are doing to protect people. Boris Gryzlow, the interior minister who is heading the investigation of the attack, happens to be the head of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party.